September 1-15-2020


Sarwat Gilani is no stranger to complex roles; with the critically-acclaimed web series “Churails”, she’s tapped into yet another dimension of her craft. Following the resounding success of the series, she chats with Mehek Raza Rizvi about the conception of “Churails”, portraying roles responsibly and how she prepared to essay Sara

“Churails” is the first Pakistan-made original series for Indian streaming platform Zee5 Global. We’re curious to know the background behind this affiliation. Who reached out first? 

Shailja Saraswati Varghese, who heads content at Zee5 had noticed Asim Abbasi’s movie “Cake” and found it to be an interesting piece of art. She approached Asim and suggested they collaborate. At that point, Asim was in the process of writing the first draft of “Churails” and so he put together the pilot and sent it across. She liked it and asked him to write her a couple of more episodes, which he did and the rest is history. She loved the concept and commissioned Asim to create Pakistan’s first original product for Zee5. She gave him a lot of creative liberty to do things his way, because she could understand that he’s like a stallion—you can’t control Asim.

Did the team consider that the association of “Churails” with an Indian streaming platform could possibly hurt the sentiments of some of your local fans? 

A product like this is not for television or film. It had to be a web series; it was written for web and sadly, we don’t have an online portal of our own yet. If Netflix or Amazon had asked us for our content, that wouldn’t have been a problem, so why should this be? Art has no boundaries and artists want to exchange work. We don’t want to put ourselves in these little matchboxes saying “this is my world” and “this is where my art stays.” Art and music are forms you can’t control; they’re like water. If we had a Pakistani platform and we didn’t use it, then we would’ve at least given a thought to what people would say, but in the absence of such an option, if someone showed interest in Pakistan and its talent, I don’t think there was any room for resistance or second thoughts.

Asim has attempted to show the real, grey people. They could come from any part of society, but they have fallen, they have risen, they have imperfections, but also some great qualities. Your positives and negatives make you human

“Churails” is a brave script, unlike any other to have been produced in the country. However, something as courageous is always susceptible to backlash. Is/was that a fear? 

When I read the script, I knew this was a page-turner. The exceptional story is the hero of the project, it is both the antagonist and the protagonist and that’s a very unique concept to come across. With something so different, there are always fears about how it’ll be received. Whilst we were making it, we did have our doubts about people taking this well, or us hurting the feelings of part of our audience. However, we were blown away with the overwhelming love and encouragement we received when the trailer released and even more so after the first episode premiered. It was unreal; we had attempted to do something so unusual, it could make people feel uncomfortable, but it didn’t. And even if it did make a certain segment uncomfortable, they were happy with it, knowing that for the first time, someone had made the effort to talk about real issues women face that are normally not touched upon in our entertainment industry.

Tell us of the first thoughts you had when “Churails” was offered to you. 

My first thought was “Wow!” I was just thanking my stars to be offered an unbelievable script that would make history in Pakistan. For an actor to be offered such a role and be part of such a project is like a dream. This was the unicorn I had been looking for throughout my career. I had never read, or even watched, anything like this before. I was over the moon. This is right up my alley and I’d been waiting for it for so long. I’m an artist, a rebel—I’ll always stand up for myself and say what’s right when people try to put me down or troll me. This was a story that I could relate to. The issues addressed in this script are pertinent and important to talk about. What more could I have asked for, than someone like Asim Abbasi highlighting these topics so beautifully and sensitively? He really took ownership of the real reflections of our society.

Run us through the creative process of preparing for a role like Sara. Can you relate to the character you’re playing? 

Absolutely! I can relate to Sara completely. I think the casting was done very intelligently. Half the job was done with selecting just the right talent. I think one of the most important tasks on set is hiring the correct people and if you succeed at that, you’ve won part of the battle already.

Preparing for my role involved a lot of readings, rehearsals and personal sessions to discuss our characters, even our personal experiences—our inhibitions, sorrows and complexes—we opened up to Asim wholeheartedly, so he could understand us and see if there were any vulnerabilities he could tap into as an example when we weren’t getting something on set.

There were a lot of things that we talked about, references that we drew. A lot inspiration for Sara’s body language was drawn from Gayatri Devi, the third Maharani consort of Jaipur. I also took inspiration from Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” and for a couple of scenes with Omair Rana, I saw and studied Angelina Jolie in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” So there was a lot that I picked from reading what I had read before or going back to characters I had seen before.

There were a lot of things that we talked about, references that we drew. A lot inspiration for Sara’s body language was drawn from Gayatri Devi, the third Maharani consort of Jaipur. I also took inspiration from Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” and for a couple of scenes with Omair Rana, I saw and studied Angelina Jolie in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”

How was your experience working with an all-female cast? 

It was almost an all-female cast—we did have a few male co-stars on set as well, but it was an undeniably amazing experience! I think what made it even better was the fact that these were all actors with a background in theatre and were just fantastic at their craft. I always felt inspired by each one of them, as they brought so much to the table. The real magic was in the fact that they were always so normal, grounded and chilled out behind the camera, but as soon as they were shooting, they embodied the strong characters they were portraying so smoothly and effortlessly.

I think because we all came from the theatre community, we understood the essence of teamwork. There was no “star” on our set. We all stuck through the strenuous hours, challenging locations and hot weather, because we were working towards one goal, which was Asim’s vision—that was the beauty of “Churails.”  Our friendships have translated from reel to real life, so you can imagine what the vibe must have been like.

Why do you think it’s important to show flawed female characters on screen? 

The whole idea of “Churails” is to get acceptance for a normal, regular human being. In our drama serials, it’s either a negative or positive role, particularly for women. There are fixed stereotypes: the working woman wearing western attire will be painted as cunning, while the one clad in shalwar kameez will be painted as innocent and upright—there is no middle ground, all characters are black and white. Asim has attempted to show the real, grey people. They could come from any part of society, but they have fallen, they have risen, they have imperfections, but also some great qualities. Your positives and negatives make you human.

Mostly, we see stories of characters who aren’t relatable, but “Churails” is the story of real women, with real issues and real traits.

Do you feel gender portrayal in Pakistani drama serials will see a shift in the near future?

I really hope so. I wish “Churails” proves to be a benchmark for our entertainment industry and we move towards more message-oriented content, without creating dilemmas in the minds of our audience and taking down their intellectual ability to understand something. I feel there is no gender equality in our drama serials. In my eighteen years of working as an actress, I’ve always had to be rescued by a man: a husband, lover, father or friend. Never before have I played a character where I fell and rose myself. Every drama is built around the premise of “will they get married?” It’s quite regressive, it’s like you don’t want people to grow. I really pray that we start taking responsibility to tell the truth and stop misguiding the public.

What role can actors play in bringing about this change? 

When offered characters and stories that don’t encourage the idea of uplifting my audience or stimulating intellectual growth, I don’t accept them. If I can’t agree with a concept, I can’t preach it. This is why I’ve always done selective work. Your character has to be believable. I think actors should say no to poor content, regardless of the money involved. This is our responsibility as entertainers. We should not support putting women down in particular.

Women will definitely take away the fact that they aren’t the only ones with flaws. By showing the reality of our world, we’re aiming to make our resilient women realise that they’re born to fly, not crawl

What do you hope, both women and men take away from the web series?  

Women will definitely take away the fact that they aren’t the only ones with flaws. By showing the reality of our world, we’re aiming to make our resilient women realise that they’re born to fly, not crawl. Men on the other hand, will be reminded of all the cracks they’ve made in society and also of the unfair expectations they have of women. We want men to be a little uncomfortable, so they understand this is the new age; every woman has a voice and they are going to fail in shunning us.

More importantly, what has been your biggest takeaway from your experience working on “Churails?”

I think my most favourite experience has been unlearning my preconceived notions about acting.

Photography: Rizwan ul Haq  | Styling: Ella Hussain at Emergency Room 19

Wardrobe: Yellow dress dress courtesy Asim Jofa  | Hair & Makeup: Arshad Khan

Jewellery: Rouge by Rooj Amir and Jewels by Irma Hasan

Fiery singer Meesha Shafi talks to Haider Rifaat about her road to self-discovery, a grand album in the making and nepotism in Pakistan’s entertainment industry

Why did you decide to pursue a full-blown career in music as opposed to acting and modelling?

Music just came to me naturally at a very young age. I’ve been singing since I was four and kind of went with the flow, once opportunities started coming my way. I’d already been acting and modelling for some years when my music career began. Acting, singing and modelling have continued to overlap over the course of my trajectory, however my biggest passion is music. When I sing, my soul sings too.

Has COVID-19 affected Pakistan’s music industry for the better or the worse?

I know for a fact that many musicians are struggling with depression and financial stress because these challenges have put a halt to live gigs and concerts. These gigs are a major source of income for many musicians. Celebrities can still do television commercials and drama shoots, while following the standard operating procedures, but musicians are really having a hard time this year. The studio work is still ongoing, which is an indication of new songs and albums being written and recorded, both remotely and in isolation.

The culture of online music festivals has grown during a global crisis. How would’ve things been different without social media’s power to entertain mass crowds? 

We’re fortunate to be living in a digital age during a global pandemic. It would’ve been even harder otherwise. Social media and the internet at large have helped keep everyone connected with their fans and loved ones. It’s been a blessing!

Tell our readers about the Global Toronto (GT20) music festival that you recently participated in?

It’s called Global Toronto. Initially, it was going to be live but given the circumstances, it shifted online. A very hefty jury selected 20 artists based on submissions from a pool of 150 entries. Those 20 artists played their music to delegates from around the world. These delegates included directors of various international music festivals, agents, promoters, presenters and talent hunters. As the only Pakistani selected, I was very excited to represent our musical heritage with the global music industry. I’d love to see more of our culture and music being played live globally, at international festivals and on radios across the airwaves.

How do you see the current lockdown affecting artists’ creativity and craft, specifically in music? Any experiences you would like to share?

The lockdown has been a great time for ideas and creativity. Many creative people thrive during these times, because the noise and speed of the everyday grind slows down. This is a fertile time to go inwards and ask ourselves what we want to create. Put pen to paper and go back to the old drawing board, as they say. Artists are extra sensitive and when we feel a rush of emotions, we naturally express what we feel through our craft. In such a way, this lockdown will lead to more honest work, made from a deeper, more personal perspective.

Do you feel that artists in the music business today have trouble finding their own voice?

I don’t. The newer batch of artists looks extremely promising and exciting. I’ve been following and even collaborating with many younger indie artists. Reminds me of my days when I started with Overload. That creative spirit, where music was made for the sake of music, is very much still alive.

What new music can we expect from you? Any album in the making?

Yes, I’m working on a big project that involves all original work. It’s a very personal body of work with me, being my most honest and vulnerable self. It’s a multidisciplinary project; an album but more like a thesis. I’m collaborating with several artists, writers, thinkers and creative individuals and am really enjoying the process. My vision’s at a stage where it’s turning into a reality. This project has been a long-time dream of mine and I think the lockdown has really helped show me that the time for it is now.

Which music composer do you wish to collaborate with in the future?

I’ve been truly blessed to’ve worked with the best of the best in Pakistan and abroad. The only name on my wish list is A.R. Rahman.

What’s your connection with Sufism like? Is it self-healing?

I’m a deeply spiritual person. My connection with the divine has become stronger over time. It’s very essential for healing and has been my saving grace through difficult times. Staying balanced, centered and connected is our number one job. That’s how we become the best version of ourselves.

How have you evolved as a person over the years?

That is a vast question; I don’t think I can answer that so briefly. I’ve become a lot wiser and calmer as I grew from a young woman, to a mother, and now at this stage, I feel like I’m returning to my most authentic self. That was the place I wrote “Mein” from. It talks about returning to your true self. Coming full circle and shedding the opinions of others. Not leading a life so egotistically, but from our higher selves, which is an extension of our source energy.

How has motherhood changed you?

It’s changed me a lot. It’s taught me a lot about unconditional love, being a role model and how important it is to prioritise self-care. Children watch and learn. They imitate you. So it’s crucial to show them how they can stand up for themselves, respect and honor their feelings and lead their lives with dignity and kindness.

I wanted your take on nepotism. I believe it shouldn’t be brushed off as common practice in all major career fields. For an entertainment industry like Pakistan, nepotism remains widespread, leaving fresh faces, with considerable talent, on the side. What do you make of this?

I’ve seen many self-made artists follow their own path to success, so I wouldn’t say that only people with family connections make it in the industry.

Let’s talk fashion. Are you someone who follows the latest trends or sticks to her own personal style?

I’ve always followed my own instincts when it comes to fashion. I don’t follow trends. I guess that is the difference between style and fashion. I don’t consider myself fashionable, but I do have a signature way of styling myself.



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